“Am I Listening to English?”
Dialect, racism and the world of college football
The national championship game between Auburn and Florida State is fast becoming a memory. What we saw on the field was revelatory. Jameis Winston had a lights-out performance as FSU stormed back and overtook Auburn in the second half of a game tighter than anyone expected.
Great game. Great end to the tortured history of the Bowl Championship Series — gone but not forgotten, late but unlamented. As soon as the game was over, however, another controversy was fueled — among the oldest in American public life.
A very excited Jameis Winston had this to say after the game: "We champions. We can share that. We are champions together. And through everything that we went through. Through all the haters. Through every single thing, we came out victorious. God did this. I'm so blessed. He's so blessed. All the stuff that he handled with Ethan [Fisher, the coach's son, who has been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called Fanconi anemia] and he come out here and coach us? That touched me. And it's nobody but God. It's nobody."
Winston, a native of Hueytown, Ala., hit all the expected points: An appeal to God. A recognition that he was blessed. The usual conflation of divine providence and athletic achievement. NBD, except to a certain observer, an Alabama resident herself.
"Am I listening to English?"
Those words from Dee Dee McCarron — the mother of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron — brought forth a reminder that, despite the integration of college football in the 1970s, back when Bear Bryant prowled the sidelines, we're never too far away from racially coded rhetoric.
Mama McCarron apologized. Retracted the Tweet. BFD. To borrow from The Four Tops, it's the same old song.
Perhaps because college football is so delightfully plebian — everyone has opinions, the most vociferous often coming from those who never actually attended a college — it tends to bring out sides of people that might better be kept hidden. The controversy about Winston's post-game speech — with his inclusion of colloquialisms and adherence to the syntactical parameters of African-American vernacular English — called to mind another incident that still gives the type of white folks who claim not to have a racist bone in their body clearance to front like a liquored-up Fuzzy Zoeller.
A few years ago, Corrine Brown took to the floor of the House of Representatives to congratulate the Florida Gators on winning a national championship. The speech (delivered in her customary AAVE) became instantly infamous, indexed on Google 8,040 times — there's a YouTube with subtitles — and producing the Autocomplete suggestion "corrine brown go gata."
If I had a dollar for every time I heard some jackass lampooning that speech in exaggerated dialect, I'd have enough money to cover an evening at the gentleman's club of my choice.
Anyone who's done a cursory study of linguistics knows that there are quite a few major dialects of so-called standard American English, with many variations thereof in the mix. Hell, people who've lived in Jacksonville long enough with keen-enough ears could probably distinguish the traditional Oceanway accent from the Westside patois. What does it all mean? It means that speech is a function of origin, of time, of place. And, in this context, that certain people took the way Winston and Brown spoke and used it to amplify their prejudices and preconceptions.
Their prejudices extend beyond those cases, of course. Consider the response former Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong — who would've been head coach in Gainesville long before now if he wasn't in an interracial marriage, and who built the Louisville program from nothing into a national presence — evoked from a leading booster when Texas hired him as head coach. The booster, billionaire and former San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs, said that Strong would make a "great position coach, maybe a coordinator."
We as Americans still have a lot of work to do when it comes to race. College football — and the commentary on it — reveals that as well as anything.